On Nov. 27, 1978, openly gay San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk was murdered, along with Mayor George Moscone, by former Supervisor Dan White.
Milk, Moscone Assassinated
Harvey Milk, the first openly gay American to hold a prominent elected office, served on the San Francisco City Board of Supervisors alongside Dan White, a clean-cut Vietnam veteran and former firefighter.
The two had a friendly relationship at first, but that had changed when Milk opposed a zoning bill pushed by White, and White became the only supervisor to vote against Milk’s gay-rights ordinance. Furthermore, as Milk’s work in the gay rights movement made him a national icon, White’s career sputtered and sent him into depression.
In November 1978, White resigned from his seat, saying that the supervisor salary was not enough to support his family. Progressive Mayor George Moscone told White that he would consider reappointing him if he chose to return; when White did ask to return several days later, Moscone refused to reappoint him, due in part to a request by Milk.
Feeling angry and betrayed, White decided to take revenge on Moscone and Milk. On Nov. 27, 1978, he carried a loaded .38 revolver to City Hall with the intent to kill the two men.
He entered City Hall through a side door to avoid a weapons search. Moscone’s secretary let White into Moscone’s office, where White shot him four times, the final two shots fired in the head as Moscone lay on the floor.
White then walked down the hall to Milk’s office and asked, “Harvey, can I see you a minute?” Milk followed White into his former office, where White shot him five times, again finishing with point-blank shots to the head.
Dianne Feinstein, president of the Board of Supervisors, announced the deaths on the steps on City Hall. The city was horrified. That night, 40,000 walked through the streets and held candlelight vigils.
“At suppertime, we were alerted again by KSAN that there would be a candlelight vigil at Market and Castro,” writes “Uncle Donald,” a Castro Street resident. “When we arrived, the crowd was already huge. Considering that there had been no planning, this was phenomenal. It assured us that we were not alone. We WERE community and we WERE supported by our fellow citizens.”
The UC Berkeley Library has a collection of audio clips from Pacifica Radio covering Milk at gay right rallies, the Milk/Moscone murders, and Dan White’s trial.
Biographies: Milk and Moscone
Read the full biography of Harvey Milk or read a 1978 interview with him.
Harvey Milk owned a camera shop on San Francisco’s Castro Street, a center of gay culture. During the 1970s, he made a name for himself advocating for the rights of gays and small business owners, earning the nickname “The Mayor of Castro Street.”
He ran several times for public office and won an election for city supervisor in 1977, becoming one of the first openly gay elected officials in the United States. In his 11 months as supervisor, Milk pushed through a city ordinance outlawing discrimination based on sexual orientation. He also led the opposition to Proposition 6, also known as the Briggs Initiative, which would have required the firing of all homosexual public school teachers.
Milk received many death threats during his political career, prompting him in 1977 to record a will to be read if he was assassinated. “If a bullet should enter my brain,” he said, “let that bullet destroy every closet door.”
George Moscone was the “first truly progressive mayor of San Francisco,” writes the San Francisco Chronicle. Elected in 1975, his tenure is best known for keeping the Giants baseball team from moving and appointing many women, minorities and gays to government positions.
“I think the legacy of inclusiveness, which I believe was the hallmark of George’s approach to politics, remains and will never change,” said Moscone’s Deputy Mayor Rudy Nothenberg.
White’s “Twinkie Defense”
Sources in this Story
- San Francisco Chronicle: City Hall Horror
- San Francisco Weekly: Dan White’s Motive More About Betrayal Than Homophobia
- Time: Another Day of Death
- Uncle Donald’s Castro Street: Harvey Milk Assassination
- YouTube: NBC NEWS November 27, 1978 George Moscone & Harvey Milk Dead
- San Francisco Chronicle: Moscone’s Time Was Anything But Quiet
White turned himself into police the day of the shootings. During his trial for murder, White’s lawyers argued that he had diminished capacity due to depression. As evidence for his depression, they said that he had been eating a large amount of junk food in the weeks leading up to the shootings, which was uncommon for the physically-fit White. The defense used by White would become known derisively as the “Twinkie defense.”
The jury, comprised mostly of conservatives, showed sympathy to White and convicted him only of manslaughter. The gay community was outraged, marching through the streets in protest.
White served five years in prison and was released in 1984. Still depressed, he was unable to get his life back in order and committed suicide on Oct. 21, 1985.
Related Topic: Jonestown Suicides
Nine days earlier, Jim Jones, head of the Peoples Temple church, led a mass suicide of hundreds of church members and ordered the assassination of San Francisco-area Congressman Leo Ryan. Jones had close ties to many in the San Francisco political establishment, and had supported Moscone in his campaign for mayor.
There was initially suspicion that the Milk and Moscone murders were related to Jones. “When word of the deaths first came down, first thoughts were of the Peoples Temple story,” reported Rick Davis of NBC News “Reports that there was an assassination squad with a hit list naming city politicians.”